2019 ROBERT P. BERGMAN PRIZE
Growing up in a musical family, Terri Pontremoli became enchanted by two distinct forms of music at home: jazz and classical. Her father played jazz guitar, so she heard all the Great American Songbook standards as he practiced them for his weekend gigs. Both parents, though, wanted her and her sister to learn classical music and become proficient at an instrument, so she studied violin and Anita played piano.
“We played, we performed, went to the Cleveland Institute of Music for preparatory lessons, for college, taught there,” she says. “So I lived a lot of my life at CIM.”
In her 20s, Terri began to branch out when she became a professional classical violinist for hire. She played with the Ohio Chamber Orchestra, Cleveland Chamber Orchestra, operas, ballets, the Omaha Symphony, and the Fort Wayne Philharmonic among others. She and Anita performed together as Duo Pontremoli.
Freelancing was “a complete blast for me,” she says, because she got to perform in the pit orchestra for big Broadway shows like The King and I starring Yul Brynner. But she was also cutting loose in the pit for rollicking shows at the Front Row Theatre for the Smothers Brothers, Peggy Lee, Lena Horne, Sammy Davis, Jr. and other greats. That’s when her love of jazz began to grow and deepen.
“It was such a kick because you would show up the day of the show, get your music put down in front of you, sight read everything during rehearsal, and that night you’d play the show,” Terri enthuses. “I started getting into the charts, playing those really gorgeous arrangements for Tony Bennett or George Benson, for example. The string writing was so beautiful, so I always had that dual thing going on.”
When she got into her 40s, Terri decided that she wanted to do something else. David Bamberger, who knew her from her orchestra pit experiences, hired her to work in arts administration for the Cleveland Opera in the late ‘80s. She worked there for a year, but the pull of jazz music had only grown stronger. She contacted Max Dehn at Tri-C JazzFest Cleveland. They talked. In 1990, he hired her to oversee and raise money for their jazz education programs in the schools and community outreach efforts.
In 2002, Terri became Tri-C JazzFest's director. When she learned of famed jazz music producer Tommy LiPuma’s Cleveland connection, she reached out to him through some of her Board members who knew his brother Hank. She then decided to do a tribute to LiPuma’s acclaimed career to celebrate the JazzFest’s 25th anniversary. He agreed and because of his close relationships with premier jazz musicians, she was able to build the show around Diana Krall, Joe Sample, David Sanborn, Al Jarreau, and other jazz stars.
“We built two full nights of shows at the Allen Theatre; they all did loving tributes to Tommy,” she remembers. “We paid them to fly in and stay and bring some of their cohorts, but the artists donated their services, and it was such a huge event for us.”
Good friend and esteemed jazz bassist John Clayton who also performed adds: “Terri is a one-of-a-kind person whose passions combine to make her the perfect arts ‘Power Guide.’ She connects with musicians, pedagogues, students, philanthropists and ‘down home’ folk, always getting the job done better than anyone, and in a natural and comfortable manner. Terri is THE BEST. Period.”
In 2004, feeling like she needed to do something else, Terri left to direct the Cleveland Arts Prize for a year. “The pull” of jazz remained strong, however, and in 2005, she took over the Detroit Jazz Festival for six years. She returned to head Cleveland’s JazzFest and Tri-C’s Creative Arts Center of Excellence again in 2012. Today, she also serves as a consultant at the Newport and Montclair jazz festivals. Under her renewed guidance, Tri-C JazzFest transitioned from a spring series of performances into a year-round celebration culminating with a weekend destination event at the end of June.
“We give artists opportunities to not only engage in our community through our annual artist residencies where they come to town several times a year, but we also commission them to create new works and do something that they might not do any other place,” Terri says of the key highlights of what the JazzFest accomplishes. “We also give our students experiences that they wouldn’t get any place else, so it’s the creation of those opportunities, putting those musicians all together that I love.”